A version of this article was originally published in Triathlete Magazine
Article one of our series on carbon fiber provided an overview of the most common manufacturing processes used in composite component and bicycle frame fabrication. In article two, we discussed the raw materials that go into making the carbon fiber prepreg and how it relates to some of the common terms used in cycling marketing. This final part discusses the four types of carbon fiber bike companies selling composite bikes.
Like most manufactured products, the price of a bike is based on a profit margin above two universal manufacturing expenses – engineering/manufacturing costs and the cost of raw materials – in combination with other associated business expenses (marketing, rent…). How a company wants to present itself (builder of uncompromising quality, lowest price, custom, highest performance…) can all play a role in what approach to composite bike building they take. While companies sometimes use multiple approaches (Trek, for example, uses an “All in One Mass Production” approach for many of their models, and a “Design and Engineering” approach on others), most companies will fall into one of the following four categories:
“All-in-One” mass production carbon fiber bicycle companies:
These companies are few, but tend to be some of the biggest and best known brands in the industry. All-in-one mass producers almost always use bladder molding to produce bikes and do everything from their engineering and design through actual carbon molding and finish work in-house. Trek and Giant are two of the only ones that mass produce composite bikes this way as the start-up costs are significant. Giant also sub-contracts to design and engineering companies (see below) and builds frames for them too. Cervelo also produces one frame, their top level RCa road frame, in-house and could be considered in this category even though they are more of a design and engineering company.
“All-in-One” bicycle manufacturers:
Like the mass production companies, these companies do as much of their own engineering, design, frame production and finish work as possible. However, instead of trying to maximize economies of scale, like the mass production companies, these builders employ this approach for the opposite reason – they are so passionate about building bikes that they want as much control over the end result as possible. Specialty builders tend to focus on maximizing fit, ride tunability and quality, durability, and finish options by using top quality materials in combination with the workmanship and quality control that only a handcrafted approach can provide. When properly matched to the rider, bikes by these companies are some of the best fitting, best riding and longest lasting available.
All-in-one specialty builders most frequently employ roll-wrapped and filament wound carbon fabrication techniques. This being said, some of these companies are integrating molded structures into their designs as well. Guru’s CR.901 and Photon models are good examples of bridged fabrication techniques by a specialty manufacturer. In addition to Guru, all in one specialty manufacturers include Parlee, Independent Fabrications, Waterford/Gunnar and titanium specialty builder Moots out of Stemboat Springs, CO.
Design and engineering bicycle companies:
These companies design, engineer and market their own products, but have them built by a sub-contractor (usually in Asia) to their specifications. These frames are almost always bladder molded and brands like Cervélo, KUOTA, Felt, Orbea and Specialized are good examples of brands that frequent this approach. The level of quality control and attention to detail is determined by what factory they subcontract with, how much the company invests in supervising the production of their frames, and the quality of their engineering and processes. The best companies in this category have invested heavily in their engineering (about 25% of Cervélo’s employees are engineers, for example) and have a tight relationship with their production factory in Asia. This helps them produce innovative designs quickly and with quality that is comparable to the big all-in-one producers.
Marketing and distribution companies:
The majority of the carbon bikes being ridden today come out of a relatively small number of mass production factories in Asia. In addition to building frames for the design and engineering companies, these companies also have deep catalogs of the frame designs they have sketched out or prototyped. A marketing or distribution company will purchase or license these designs and market them under their name. These firms often have little to nothing to do with the design, production, testing, materials, manufacturing, or testing of the product; they are responsible for distribution, marketing and sales of the product only. In some cases, the same frame design can be found under two or more brand names. The frames that are offered this way are typically built using standard (the most basic level) modulus carbon or a prepreg of another fiber (like fiberglass) altogether. The combination of inexpensive materials and eliminating engineering and associated manufacturing expenses results in some of the least expensive composite frames available.
Carbon fiber is one of the most versatile structural materials ever developed and composite technology will continue to be a driving force in bicycle products for the foreseeable future.
Even if “Aerospace Grade” materials are used, if aerospace grade manufacturing processes are not used, the end product will not be aerospace grade. Composites reward precision in engineering, materials and manufacturing processes and the most difficult part of carbon fiber manufacturing is usually consistency. Just a degree or two of change in lay-up between units can reduce the overall strength of one unit to the next by 10-25% and a small void in a lay-up can result in a cracked frame down the road. The more control a company has over the engineering, materials and production of their final product, the more control they have over the end result.
Not all composite products are created equal. It is frequently impossible to tell how well made a frame or component is by looking at it, as imperfections and cost cutting procedures could be internal and are easy to fill and hide beneath paint or graphics if they are external. The old adage, “You get what you pay for.“ holds true with composites like carbon fiber in almost all cases. Bike dealers that take an engineering and research based approach to product selection can make recommendations for your individual needs, while further explaining what you get and why in a given brand or model.
Originally published May 2008/Copyright © 2008